Thursday, June 18, 2009

She Bites Me... She Bites Me Not!

Ok, everyone... move to the edge of your chair!

Here we go:

If you have never, ever, ever been bitten by a bird, please stand up...



Ok, my chair continues to be warm, how about yours?? !!

I think it is fairly easy to say that if parrot owners were polled on their top five concerns, screaming and biting would take the ranks of #1, #2, #3 and possibly #4 as well!

And they are only two behaviors!

It's a big topic, but I'm gonna take a poke at it (pardon the pun):


This is a real question, from Carly in Ohio, who lives with her beautiful budgie, Twyla. Twyla can be a sweetheart, but recently she has been presenting her companion with some challenges.

With permission, here are portions of a question from Carly (emphasis added):

"Twyla's biting has officially gotten too much out of hand...

Twyla bites very very very very very very very hard that I can't even stress it enough - when I try and get her to step up or when i am moving stuff around in her cage. Although she DOES have good days where I am allowed to be working in her cage without being bitten. But most of the time she gets the evil eye and lunges for me. Sometimes if I am fixing a toy in her cage she will go down and start munching on some food and leave me alone, but thats not as frequent as the biting.

...I need to start re-training her using millet but I'm afraid she will be so used to biting people that she won't stop. I don't pull my hand away (as much as I want to!) so she doesn't win the fight between hand and beak. I usually just keep going and fixing the toy but she will grab a chunk of skin and bite bite bite leaving deep indents in my skin...she had made me bleed once. I hope I can work with her enough that she will stop this... any advice?"

I believe we can all understand and relate, at least I know I can! We want the best for our birds, and that includes a mutually enjoyable relationship. Me getting bit is not 'enjoyable' in my book!

I've heard plenty of (bad) advice over the years, that usually goes something like this: Whatever you do, do not pull your hand away. If your bird bites,
wrap your arm with a towel, wear long sleeves, or use gloves. You don't want the bird to think it 'won'. Pretend biting doesn't hurt.

Unfortunately, we see in the above question that Twyla's biting behavior continued to increase and escalate in intensity despite Carly's dedication to trying not to pull her hand away.

So, time to try to a different approach, and to listen to what Twyla was trying to say through her body language and her behavior. And knowing Carly, I knew she was up for the task!

Fast forward two days after her initial question when I received the following response:

Robin I followed your instruction andddddd today a miracle happened. Twyla stepped up on my finger over and over biting either. This was seriously a miracle...after a year of no progress, when I tried your advice it worked the second day!

What made the difference?

In my post entitled "Flight or Bite" we touched on the subject: body language. Observing Twyla's body language and responding to it before it escalated to biting.
Responding to it how? By removing the hand before the beak made contact. This was the opposite of Carly's previous approach and way of thinking. Some of the body languages that may precede an escalation to a bite are:

Raised Feathers
Moving Away
Leaning Away
Flying Away
Leaning Forward

... and so forth. If we can observe and respond to our bird's body language before it escalates to biting, the bird begins to learn that it does not necessarily need to escalate to all out warfare.

We observe, interpret and respond to the less escalated body language.

But let me play the other side of this conversation:

"But, Robin - if I pull my hand away when the bird lunges, then the bird 'will win'!"

If by 'winning' we mean gaining the ability to be empowered to communicate the lack of desire for interaction, then absolutely! We understand and respect the body language, and it is a victory for the bird, for us, and most important the relationship!

Ok, let's try another one:

"But, Robin - if I pull my hand away when the bird lunges, aren't I reinforcing lunging"?

Yes. I'd much rather reinforce a lunge to get back on track than continue to reinforce biting. Of course, I am really looking for an opportunity to reinforce leaning away from me, or even a subtle 'look' that I know (by knowing my bird) means "not now, thank you; no interaction for me, please!" I am looking to reinforce more subtle means of communication (body language).

I think one of the problems that can arise is time. We may find ourselves with the time to interact, a few extra minutes, and we would like the bird to come out of the cage, or we would like to hang out with the bird. We have the time, and the desire. But if the bird is not on the same page, and would prefer a nap, to preen, or to meditate... well, timing is everything.

We can be tempted to think that if we can just get the bird to step up, or sit on our shoulder, that they will see they are having a great time, and we will win them over.

But if an interaction began with a bad experience.... with forcing or coercing the interaction...

I do not want to try to build a positive experience based upon the foundation of a negative one.

Alright, one more!

"But, Robin - if I leave my hand there and let the bird bite it, then the bird will learn that biting gains it nothing, and it will stop biting, right?"

Notwithstanding learned helplessness (and that is a whole different topic), it certainly wasn't working that way for Twyla... her biting behavior was increasing as was the intensity.

I consider learning to read my bird's body language a lifestyle skill for me, and my bird's ability to communicate the body language of "not now", in a method other than biting, and have me understand, is building a lifestyle skill for my bird as well. We will have many more enjoyable experiences if we are on the same page.

Carly wisely discerned that some intervention was needed and reached out for help. What she had read, had been advised to do, and in fact had tried for quite some time was simply not working.

Now, with a renewed dedication to reading and responding to body language, her relationship with Twyla has entered a new stage. They are creating a new history, and new lifestyle skills of communication through body language. Win-win!



Arlene said...

Robin, I think this is probably the best article I've ever read on biting. I've been trying out all the new skills and having a lot of success.

Also I think it was very nice of you to spotlight Carly and Twyla. :)

scotty said...

As I explained on a post today,Blush my brat Bourke is now growling a me,I can understand because i changed her house, and caught her with a net, and so many bad things.I had her at least letting me in the cage but now she growls if I open the cage. Her idea is not to bite but to escape,so should I growl back {just kidding} do I ignore her or speak softly to her till she forgives me!

Anonymous said...

May i ask you a question as well? Please?

Robin Cherkas said...


Anonymous said...

My english is not very good, but i will try to explain as well as i can. (I'm from Romania)

I bought a green budgie from a petshop about 3 months ago. He was about 1,5 months old.(when he lifted his wing, i could see the his skin! that's when i realised how little he was).

I kept him in his cage for about 2-3 days. I ocassionaly inserted my hand in his cage and kept there for 2-3 minutes. He backed off at first, then when i realised he was not scared anymore i let him out.

Then i tought him to come upon my finger. When he was out, i kept my finger at about 10 cm from him, and he would eventualy come. At first he would nibble on my nails, but it didnt hurt.

Now, after 3 months, i'm scared to let him hop onto my finger. He bites so hard and i cannot possibly understand why. When he is on his cage i bend my finger and he kisses with it. But when he hopes onto it he leaves me marks....

ANother fact that i don't understand, is that he doesnt bite only my finger, he botes everything around him. His cage, his swing, his feet, my laptop, everything....

Does this have to do with the fact that he is stressed? He doesent have a reason... I stay with him most of the day, we kiss, he has good food and the liberty to fly around the room everyday....

Robin Cherkas said...

Hi there - first, as for the skin under the wing, your bird may be pulling its feathers out. However, it is important to know that under the wing the feathers are always very thin. This is normal. We expect to see thinning feathers under the wings, and it will look very sparse. Unless you see reddened skin that looks like it is being picked at by the bird, I would not be concerned.

As for the biting, birds often do not want to be pushed. They do not want to be touched and held nearly as much as humans think they should like it. Birds are not like feathered dogs - they are very difference from dogs, and many of them do not want that much interaction. If they are pushed, they will bite.

You will need to take it at your bird's pace. The biting is letting you know that your bird wants you to back off that and that the bird thinks you are being too pushy. Even if you do not think there is a reason, the bird is uncomfortable and doesn't want to interact. This can be frustrating if we think the bird should want touching and to be held, but many birds simply do not. The best thing to do is to stop interacting with the bird BEFORE it starts biting. Do not give the bird a reason to bite; let him have his space and independence, and enjoy interacting on the bird's terms whenever he is ready and willing. This can be hard - because it means we have to see things from the bird's perspective and abide by their wishes instead of focusing on our own wishes and desires. Feel free to email me if you would like to talk about this more in private:

Anonymous said...

hey robin, this such a wonderful article. I think it's great letting the bird respond like person..but i have question. I used to get bird out most of the time and he would come to my hand and come out from the cage. but now when i try to get him to step up, i see him stop what he does and concentrate on my hand when my hand gets closer he lunges and do i get him out without him biting my hand? Because he's fine when's he's out.

Anonymous said...

Hi Robin, this is an amazing article! Thank you for writing this, I too had read about keeping my finger in my budgie's cage, and her biting was growing more intense by the day.. Now though I'm going to pay close attention to my hen's body language, and hopefully reach a much closer relationship with my budgie :) Thank you again!

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